Cafes saying no to disposable coffee cups

Hi folks! You know, there are many global issues that we could solve through simple changes in our lifestyle. Getting rid of disposable coffee cups is a good example. There has been a big push to find technological solutions to coffee cup waste, focusing on that plastic liner that makes cups hard to recycle. Designing more sustainable materials is a good thing  but, as Elaine Butler points out on her sustainable living blog, these small improvements sometimes just defer our adoption of proper, long-term solutions. And as far as the coffee cup waste problem goes, the long-term solution is much simpler.

Shadowlands café says no to disposable cups

When Lou Chosen decided to open his Shadowlands café in Oakland, California, he made a valiant decision to not offer any disposable coffee cups. You have to either have your drink in-house or remember to bring your mug. Lou knew that he was probably going to lose custom with this policy, at least until people caught on to it, but decided that he didn’t want to compromise. For this reason, I rated Shadowlands 5/5 Green Stars and applaud Lou for being one of the first people to take this step. Normally, I would consider several factors when writing a green stars review and deciding on an ethical rating, as outlined in this post on cafés. However, in this case I decided to just focus on this one factor, since Lou went all out (or all in) on it. When he first started, in early 2019, he wasn’t aware of anyone else doing the same.

Shadowlands cafe in Oakland, which does not stock disposable cups; zero-waste cafe
Shadowlands Bookstore and Café in Oakland, California.

Disposable coffee cup waste

I’ve covered the topic of coffee cup waste a few times before, here on the GSP. It’s a problem that we should have largely eliminated by now and serves to highlight a divide in our society. There are probably two main reasons why more people don’t make the effort to use reusable cups:

  1. Awareness: The waste issue is not on their radar yet.
  2. Motivation: They are aware of the issue but remembering to bring a personal cup is not a high priority.

These are not gigantic hurdles and the use of disposable coffee cups is almost certainly one of those societal behaviors that will change rapidly. (Shout out to Megan at CupSwitch, who draws attention to the issue while rollerblading around New York!) I think we are very close to that tipping point now – hopefully by 2030, we’ll look back on the millions of coffee cups that we threw away every day and marvel at how primitive we were. Or is that just thinking wishful thinking, considering for example, the success rate of single-serve, plastic coffee pods?

Anne Hathaway's character in the Devil Wears Prada carries 4 Starbucks coffee drinks in disposable cups on the street, with a Starbucks sign in the background
Picture of success? Rushing through the city on a coffee run. From The Devil Wears Prada.

A disposable cup charge works better than a personal cup discount

I wrote a green stars review of Caffee Strada in Berkeley, California, highlighting how they used the psychological tactic of charging for disposable cups, rather than offering a discount for bringing your own. A study at UC Berkeley showed that this strategy of listing the cup charge on the menu resulted in a significant increase in personal cup use.

Perhaps influenced in part by this early study, the city of Berkeley has just introduced a charge for disposable cups (25 cents) and San Francisco is considering doing the same. Vessel Works has introduced a cup rental plan (it’s actually free) for Berkeley cafés to help accommodate customers who don’t come prepared. Cup rental plans have already been in place for a few years in Germany: The Freiburg cup was featured in the World Economic Forum in 2017 and now there’s also a nationwide option, Recup, which works in hundreds of locations throughout Germany. Attempts to get this going in other locations are already getting under way: CupClub is currently working with caterers in the UK and Muuse has launched in cafés in Singapore and Bali.

Dominique Crenn and Blue Bottle to try out disposable-free cafés

The cup rental plans will definitely help cafes to make the jump to disposable-free, and that trend does seem to be taking off now, at least judging by two recent announcements in the Bay Area. First, Michelin-star-chef Dominique Crenn is close to opening a disposable-free café in the Salesforce Tower, the new tallest building in San Francisco. And Bay Area coffee roaster, Blue Bottle Coffee, recently announced that they will switch one of their cafés to disposable-free to try it out. Lou was aware of this news and seems optimistic, hoping that even the largest chains will get on board, maybe by 2025.

I encourage you to support any cafés that make the brave move to ditch disposables. For now it’s a risky proposition and deserves ethical recognition (e.g., write a review and award 5 Green Stars) for dealing with a habit that’s long overdue for kicking.

9 thoughts on “Cafes saying no to disposable coffee cups

  1. This is great! Locally here in Boston, a couple of cafes started a “coffee cup collective” recently where you can join as a member that lets you “rent” travel mugs. Basically, you can get your coffee in a collective travel mug at any participating location, and you can drop off the dirty one at any location too within a week. I think it’s a great idea for people who sometimes forget their mug! We’ll see if it really takes off here!


  2. Haha, I got too excited to comment after just reading about Shadowlands! Definitely going to check out these other cup rentals you mentioned 🙂


  3. And then came coronavirus…just saw something today in passing about how Starbucks is saying “no” to personal cups…didn’t verify it as I’m behind in internet tasks, but if so… sigh


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